The Journey of a Dental Surgeon into International Education

When I was a student of dentistry, a caption on a T-shirt during the annual dental students’ orientation programme captured my attention. It read ‘Dental Students—BUILDING BRIDGES IN SOCIETY’. It had graphic visuals that illustrated this caption. As a student, I became increasingly involved in the broader role that health professionals play in society and the influence that they have in being able to positively change the lives of members of society. Later, as part of my studies I was awarded a student exchange scholarship at the University of Melbourne in Australia and the Royal Dental Hospital which was attached to the university’s faculty of dentistry. This was an eye opening experience that not only exposed me to differences within societies but also the common threads that run through humanity. Although I was involved in a field of study that was very much focused on health and medicine, and my subsequent working life was as a clinical dentist in both private practice and the public sector and thereafter as an academic in various sub-disciplines within dentistry, my sojourn into the international dimension had begun much earlier without me being fully cognizant of the strong influence it would have on my future career and my present activities.

During my tenure as a full-time academic and Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, I was asked by the Vice Chancellor if I would initiate the building of an international culture at Durban University of Technology. That was the beginning of a journey that would lead to a significant shift in my career options and an adventure that I had never even imagined. My initial engagement with international education was purely from the perspective of an academic. I was able to use this lens to learn about a new area of knowledge. Initially I thought this would be a major disadvantage, as I was not steeped in the administrative procedures that are a crucial part of academic mobility in internationalization. However, increasingly, I have come to appreciate both the tools and the lens that my academic background afforded me when engaging with internationalization of higher education. It has allowed me to appreciate internationalization as something that is greater than a series of international activities, projects and partnerships, but also as something that profoundly influences both the core activities at a university as well as the attributes of the graduates that emerge from our universities.

Internationalization is a powerful transformative tool that can influence the teaching, learning and research at a university. It is also a potent quality enhancement tool that can positively shape the graduate attributes of our students giving them knowledge, skills and competencies, not only in their chosen disciplines but also in the areas of cultural competence and global citizenship.

Internationalization has gone through several iterations over the ages. The ancient universities embodied the notion of universality and a university being a repository of global knowledge rather than narrow parochial knowledge. Over the years, international education has witnessed numerous transitions from a phase where the focus had been largely on commercialization and the economic benefits that academic mobility could bring to the economy of countries that hosted international students. It has gone through phases that have been activity focused, such as the learning of a foreign language or taking a course in English. There have also been phases where internationalization of higher education was seen simply as academic mobility for students and staff from different universities. However, it is heartening to note that the modern trends in international education embody a more comprehensive approach to internationalization, one that encourages the embedding of international dimensions in all activities of the university and promotes the benefits of internationalization to all students and staff at universities and not just for those that are able to engage in academic mobility. This has taken the form of strong internationalization in home programmes and internationalization of the curriculum. These concepts bring internationalization into classrooms, academic departments and university activities. It concerns not just the design and content of the curriculum but also the dynamic ongoing delivery of the broader curriculum. The creative and innovative ways in which a curriculum can be internationalized is an exciting and fascinating field with endless possibilities. Modern technology adds a fresh and exciting twist to these possibilities.

Internationalization in higher education also offers a different way through which the world is engaging, one that promotes better understanding and non-adversarial engagement. Imagine the benefits of an internationalized curriculum for a student in Maritime Studies who will spend nine months of the year with people of various nationalities in the confined environment of a ship. There is need now more than ever for an understanding and appreciation of the other and what is different. The need for global citizenship and cultural competence has never been more relevant than it is now.

A major question that emanates around internationalization is whether it is a core or peripheral issue at universities. For me the answer is clear— one cannot speak of quality teaching and learning without speaking of international benchmarks and best practices. One cannot speak of quality research without speaking of international partnerships and collaboration.

We need global solutions to the major global challenges like renewable energy, food security, HIV/AIDS and global warming. Equally, we need to take local knowledge and local challenges to the global stage.

Personally, the greatest benefit of internationalization of higher education is the bridge that it builds between the local and the global—it allows local voices, previously silent and unheard, to be heard. It allows for new lenses and epistemologies with which to appreciate knowledge, and it enriches the world with new narratives previously unheard or unwritten. This is epitomized by the old African proverb that says: “ For as long as the lion does not have a storyteller, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” I invite you to explore a world where the plurality of participation and discourse is both encouraged and appreciated.